Education Reform: Both Good Teaching and Civil Rights Matter


Poverty matters — along with a slew of other factors — when it comes to educational and life outcomes for students.

That’s what the preponderance of the evidence, prior to the recession and especially in its aftermath, bears out. For decades, we’ve known that socioeconomic status at birth has a major influence on achievement. It’s also highly correlated to race, which goes some way (in addition to the legacy of racism, other historical and cultural factors, and ineffective school leadership and teaching) in explaining the disparity between black and brown, and white and Asian students on achievement measures.

Education reform advocates are largely in agreement with the stats on this. The problem is, we’re often failing to act like we are. 

Take, for example, this week’s uproar over StudentsFirst’s selection of Tennesee state Republican Rep. John Ragan as its “reformer of the year.” StudentsFirst is an education nonprofit organization established and run by controversial former Washington, D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, and has previously endorsed and supported conservative Republican politicians, including Florida Gov. Rick Scott and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Its support of Ragan set off a considerable bout of controversy, since Ragan has a long anti-gay voting record that includes an attempt to bar Tennessee teachers from talking about sexuality that isn’t “related to natural human reproduction,” and a bill that would have mandated school officials report student discussions of sexuality to their parents.

Rhee and StudentsFirst have justly come under fire for the decision, and have already expressed regret for it

Notice, though, what they’ve not expressed regret about. Eric Lerum, StudentsFirst’s VP of National Policy summed it up:

In other words, it’s necessary and proper for StudentsFirst and education-reform activists to endorse and support candidates and public figures on some of their stances, while ignoring or sidelining their positions on other things.

Where do you draw the line, though, on which issues get priority?

For example, even if you put aside John Ragan’s homophobic voting record, he has a pretty dismal, alarming record on issues of direct relevance to poor families and kids. He’s said that Pre-K education programs like Head Start that serve poor children should be cut, has advocated against comprehensive immigration reform, has supported mandatory voter ID for voting, has opposed health-care reform, and has championed a number of punitive measures against welfare recipients. And that’s not even mentioning his position against collective bargaining rights for teachers (a position which Michelle Rhee has expressed opposition to in the past). 

So where does that leave us?

Rhee has, in the past, said that poverty is an important educational issue, but has also said that it “should never be used as an excuse” for deficits in achievement and negative outcomes, and that data-driven, effective teaching is the major influencer. And good teaching does indeed matter. But if poverty, punitive immigration enforcement, deportation of kids’ parents, discrepancies in health-care coverage, the prison-industrial complex, the drug war, and other issues also have a major effect on children’s lives, families, and communities, how do you justify not making those equal priorities? And, what’s more, how do you justify celebrating politicians who don’t support progress on those fronts, and who push through policies that negatively affect the very children and familieswe’re working for outside of the classroom?

These are big questions, and education reform is a big issue. It isn’t, and it can’t be, a separable issue from the broader questions of social justice, immigration, prisons, poverty, and health care. It isn’t, as reform advocates have often claimed, “The civil rights issue of our time.” 

And that’s because Civil Rights — that broad, big, all-encompassing issue — is the Civil Rights issue of our time.